Post Towns of the Nakasendo
As one of five major routes – referred to as the ‘Gokaido’ – connecting Kyoto and Edo/Tokyo, the Nakasendo was a vital route for trade, communications, and the movement of people during the Edo Period. The mountainous terrain through which the Nakasendo passed meant, that while it was still a vital trade route, it was less convenient for the passage of goods than the coastal roads of the Gokaido. Less trade meant fewer bandits targeting commerce on the road, and as such, the road was considered safer for the passage of people including feudal lords and their families.
Under the Tokugawa shonguate, most of the regional ‘daimyo’ (feud lords) were required to travel to Edo every second year and remain in residence for between 6 and 12 months, in an act of deference to the shogun. Known as the ‘sankin-kotai’, this policy is estimated to have cost some daimyo 25% of their yearly income to perform while also requiring their heir to remain in residence in the capital, when they were absent.
In doing so, the shogunate consolidated their control of the regional lords both economically and practically, by effectively holding their heir and close members hostage in the capital. As the road less travelled, the Nakasendo was often used to send family members of the daimyo to and from Edo, considered to be safer from banditry.
The passage of feudal families on the Nakasendo allowed towns to develop great wealth and status, as evidenced by the presence of ‘honjin’ (guesthouses for the daimyo) and ‘waki-honjin’ (guesthouses for lower officials) at each station – a legacy that has been mindfully preserved in the three most popular ‘juku’:
One of the best-preserved postal towns on the Nakasendo, Magome is known for its steep incline and beautiful views of the surrounding landscape. The historic town center has been extensively restored including a broad stone walkway with a daytime ban on the entry of vehicles. Guesthouses, restaurants, cafes and stores line the road, with plenty to explore and enjoy during the day. Visitors staying overnight at one of Magome’s ‘ryokan’ (traditional guesthouses), should opt to include dinner and breakfast as local restaurants do not stay open at night.
Magome’s honjin now houses the Toson Memorial Museum, dedicated to Japanese literary figure Shimazaki Toson, while the wakihonjin acts as a small museum profiling the town’s heritage as an important station along the Nakasendo.
Located only 15 minutes drive from Nakatsugawa Station, Magome is a popular starting point for walking the Nakasendo, with the approximate 7.5km walk to Tsumago being the most popular section of the trail. Taking between 2.5 to 3 hour, the walk takes you through an undulating landscape of rice paddies, farm fields, streams, forests and even some waterfalls and onto the next famous post town.
Tsumago is one the best preserved and most popular for post towns on the Nakasendo. Home to some great restaurants and traditional guesthouses, Tsumago is extremely popular and can be busy during the peak seasons of spring and autumn. While in town, the beautifully reconstructed honjin and original wakihonjin should be visited, with English tours available at the later.
Strolling the streets of Tsumago, past guesthouses, family homes, restaurants, stores and temples transports you back to Edo Period and the Japan of your imagination. It is an experience best enjoyed on foot, enhanced by arrival in each town following passage through forest and farmlands much-like people did hundreds of years before.
Tsumago is a 25 minute drive from Nakatsugawa Station and 45 minute drive from Kiso-Fukushima Station. While the walk to and from Magome can be done in either direction, we recommend walking from Magome to Tsumago.
Located deep in the Kiso Valley, Narai is less visited than Magome or Tsumago and our recommendation of post towns in the Kiso Valley. Located at the midpoint between Kyoto and Edo, Narai was the wealthiest of the 69 towns that marked-out the Nakasendo. Today, much of the town remains and visitors relish the extent of the preservation.
Historic buildings stretch on much further than any of the other extant postal towns which now serve as guesthouses, restaurants, and craft and antique shops. Once known as ‘Narai of a Thousand Houses’, visitors to the town will get a strong sense of its past significance with the area preservation extending 1 kilometer in length and 200 meters in width. The Nakamura Residence and Kamidonya Shiryokan are beautifully preserved residences, welcoming visitors to enter and further their understanding of life during the Edo Period.
Located just outside the town’s historic centre, Narai Station makes the town immediately accessible with some visitors choosing to walk either to or from Yabuhara. Though this walk is notably shorter than the trail from Magome to Tsumago, it is much steeper and more demanding and should only be attempted by those with a good level of fitness and mobility. In summer, the heat and humidity can make this walk challenging so make sure you are suitably prepared and take your time. For further details about walks on the Nakasendo, please refer to our ‘How to Best Enjoy the Nakasendo Trail’ page.
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